Issue 266 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Holidays promise imagined places but only give us the familiar, writes Mike Gonzalez
|Are holidays our last resort?|
The postcards have started arriving--and it's incredible how similar they look to the covers of holiday brochures. The single palm bending slightly over a coconut or two, the still lake with snow peaks standing out against a blue, almost cloudless sky. Or there are the views of cathedrals, monuments and museums--the Amsterdam Van Gogh, the Louvre, the Bilbao Guggenheim. The bizarre thing is how close these views are to what we see on the endless holiday programmes where bronzed TV newsreaders take a holiday in the Bahamas and try very hard to look as though it's hard work. Of course, there is always the occasional unlucky one, the young pop idol who drew the short straw and has to represent Morecambe in the rain as a place where happiness can come as easily as in Montego Bay.
Travel occupies more and more television and radio time, more and more acres of newsprint. Travel programmes give us the imaginary landscapes where we can picture ourselves as different, changed, browner, leaner, relaxed and cool with a cocktail in a coconut shell. But these places are fictions, constructed spaces where we can realise the dreams promised by some product or other that bears its name. Bacardi is a nightclub somewhere full of gorgeous sensual beings whose sweat obviously smells of roses. Deodorants and room fresheners take us in an instant to clean rushing water or dramatic mountain landscapes in the Outback.
In fact they're usually studio sets, or carefully preserved 'natural' places surrounded by newly built environments of apartment complexes and shopping malls where all the familiar names lie in wait--from McDonald's to Gap. You begin to wonder if you are 'abroad' at all. You have got into a plane in an airport constructed to be anywhere--and it feels more and more like a shopping mall anyway. The signs list the places we are flying to, but that's probably the only real indicator that we're on the way to somewhere different.
This airport, the complex, the tourist routes and crowded holiday monuments, are increasingly familiar (from postcards and brochures, of course). Because they seem so well known they aren't threatening. You know what to expect and everyone there speaks that universal kind of hybrid language, much like English. The other side of the coin is the sense of unease about what lies beyond, the foreignness outside the enclave. Beyond the familiar places, the street lighting's not so good, the brand names disappear, the street rings with strange words. Out there is the real Dominican Republic, Egypt, Cuba, Jamaica and Spain about which we have so often been warned. Risk and danger don't make for good holidays--backpackers disappear, young tourists come to grief when they 'wander' outside the circle of light.
The 'otherness' of abroad is difficult and threatening, so the global leisure corporations build imagined places where the weather's better but the rest of the landscape is known and safe. I wonder sometimes how we reconcile a culture that is increasingly fearful and suspicious of otherness, of the foreign, with mass tourism that is colonising more and more of the world. The answer is that there is no reconciliation. Instead, the world 'out there' is reshaped to correspond to the image.
There was a recent advert for an Observer 'Point It' dictionary given away with the paper. It showed a middle aged couple being mugged in the street in Spain. They pull out the little book of pictures (the 'Point It' dictionary) and the thief points to the things he wants--a camera, wallet and watch. They give him what he wants and it all ends in a smile. Whether or not it was a joke, it speaks volumes about the consequences of chance encounters with the natives--all communication with foreigners reduced to finger pointing and barter, and informed by deep suspicion.
It leads you back to wondering what travel is for. In the past, when the middle classes did their grand tour of Europe, it was from the safety of a first class railway carriage or an elegant international hotel where all the foreigners were servants. Contact with foreigners was kept to a minimum, limited to a brief sexual encounter or a stroll through the bazaar. In the age of mass tourism that doesn't seem to have changed much. The corporations are colonising bits of the world, transforming them into protected enclaves where the food is imported and the fences patrolled to keep contact with the other world to a minimum. How many tourists in Cuba, for example, go beyond Varadero Beach or the World Heritage Site that is the centre of Old Havana? How many Ayia Napa visitors see the rest of Cyprus? Not many, I suspect.
Travel only broadens the mind if it takes you out of your own world. If you insist on taking it with you, maybe it's easier to stick to the sun lounge at the health club round the corner, with the photo murals of waving palms on beaches...?!
Road to Perdition
Dir: Sam Mendes
|The 1998 comic book Road to Perdition on which the film was based|
This mobster movie is Sam Mendes's first film since American Beauty. That film was distinguished by the quietly merciless poise with which Mendes scrutinised American middle class suburbia. By contrast, Road to Perdition is an undistinguished film.
The setting is 1930s Chicago. The plot revolves around Michael Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks, a hitman and adopted son of Irish mafia boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). When Sullivan's 12 year old boy accidentally witnesses a killing committed by Rooney's own dissolute son Connor, Rooney Jr takes it upon himself to bury the evidence. To his father's horror, he murders Sullivan's wife and younger son while Sullivan and his 12 year old escape to plot revenge, pursued by hitman Maguire (Jude Law), reluctantly hired by Rooney Sr to protect his son.
Mendes uses this plot to explore what many others in this genre have explored before him--the moral contradictions provoked by family loyalty and betrayal. His special focus is the father/son relationship, one that bears the suspicious stamp of Steven Spielberg (his Dreamworks company produced this film jointly). To save his son from a life of crime Sullivan must carry on killing; to save the loose cannon son he wished he never had, Rooney Sr must carry on killing too.
Whether Tom Hanks can ever truly play a dark role is open to conjecture. Other Hollywood nice guys have certainly pulled it off--James Stewart did so brilliantly in the cold Anthony Mann westerns of the 1950s. But Hanks does not pull it off here. The modest integrity he carries with him everywhere--plainly visible even behind a curious moustache and dark heavy coats--is simply too jarring to be convincing. To be fair, his job is not eased by newcomer Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal of his young son. Hoechlin's stunning physical resemblance to Goodfellas actor Ray Liotta fails to compensate for that great Spielbergian cliche of American cinema--juvenile blandness.
Paul Newman's performance is the best in the film. His aged and quivering vocal chords render the pain of his paternal predicament superbly well. And Newman deftly shows us a man whose impossible but indissoluble loyalty to his son gradually drains him of the will to live. Nevertheless, his fine portrayal is undermined by the hollow characterisation of Rooney Jr (Damien Craig)--in place of substance, we have only his craggy features to warn us he is a bad egg.
This picture is certainly well paced. The shootouts are exciting. Much time and money has been spent reproducing 1930s Chicago. But in the end the film is not as dark as it could and should have been. It lacks the sombre Machiavellian grit of The Godfather or Goodfellas, and has nothing new or interesting to put in its place. Instead it slides relentlessly into sentimental sap about fathers and sons. Even Jude Law's quirky hitman, who has Charlie Chaplin feet and likes photographing corpses, serves only to remind us how much darker and better the rest of this film could surely have been.
Dir: Babak Payami
Take a small island in the Persian Gulf. Add a remote army base, made up of just one bunk bed on the beach, one tent housing a single jeep, and two soldiers, and that is the start of the latest Iranian film to hit Britain.
It's election day and the ballot box is dropped on the island by parachute, with the election official to follow by boat. To the soldier's surprise and initial distaste, she is a woman--and a city woman at that--charged with touring the island with the soldier as escort to take the ballot box to the people, rather than the other way round. This turns out to be a hard job, as the island seems to be inhabited only by shepherds and smugglers. They are understandably upset at being harassed by the soldier, who the official has to restrain from arresting them as they try to vote. She argues with him, asking how people can vote when he keeps on getting his gun out.
Our official is very determined and leaves no stone unturned to get the vote out. She finally leaves the island at sunset, having won over the soldier, who is no longer so grumpy and is much more committed to the project, as well as perhaps to her. He ends up understanding that the secret vote is much more important than he had thought.
With its moody long shots, slow pace and eerie scenery, Babak Payami's film is bidding for the same league as other Iranian film giants such as Abbas Kiarostami, director of The White Balloon, and Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, whose film Blackboards was recently shown in England. But unlike those directors Payami spent a large part of his life in Canada before returning recently to Iran to make this film. Perhaps this international perspective allows Payami to claim that his film is not just a beautiful Iranian road movie, offering a window onto Iranian life, but also a lighthearted comment on elections generally, and democracy the world over.
The official is lost for words when asked by a girl aged 12 why she cannot vote: 'I'm old enough to marry--why not to vote?' Parallels in Britain spring to mind, with soldiers being old enough to fight at 17 but too young to vote. Then there are the group of men who argue with her, saying their candidate has not even been put on the list, and the man who only wants to vote for god. And the group of women who, confronted by a female election official, gain the confidence to cast their vote, even though their husbands are out at work and are not there to guide them. The film deals with issues of gender as well as those of democracy. The dilemma of how much this changes the world is posed but left for us to decide.
Bush and Blair often argue they have a right to dominate the world, particularly the Middle East, by saying they stand for democracy, and countries like Iran have none. This film is a gentle statement that gives the lie to that, by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Iranian democracy, and of democracy the world over.
Dystopias on film
|Looking for a better world in Minority Report|
With the release of Minority Report there has been renewed interest in what the world will one day be like. Throughout cinema's history film-makers have not only been preoccupied with the future but how we can fight the nightmarish situations we face today. Cinema through the ages has thrown up many dystopic futures but also many heroes, fighters and leaders.
The first, and possibly greatest, filmic dystopia is Fritz Lang's Metropolis, set in 2026, one hundred years from when it was made. The city of Metropolis is a crowded one where people are either of the privileged elite, or of the vast numbers of the working class that live underground to run the machines, and keep the above ground Metropolis in working order. The workers may run the machines, but the machines run the lives of the workers.
The motif of workers integrated into the mechanism of the system is echoed in science fiction today. The Matrix has human beings used as power cells for the machines that rule the earth. However, in Lang's dystopia the workers are always striving for a way of escape. In many modern filmic dystopias, the majority don't believe that a way out is possible but a few--often portrayed as gifted or selected--know that it is. For example, it is the Jedi that lead the fight in Star Wars against the Nazi Empire and in The Matrix the resistance is always striving to find the chosen one predicted by the Oracle.
There are films, however, that challenge this idea. In George Lucas's THX1138 the title character is only one of thousands of nameless, faceless workers in the huge underground colony. He realises that escape is never far away and that it is only the workers' fear keeping them in the colony. THX1138 is an ordinary worker with no special powers or features. Yet he can see what is actually going on and fight against the ruling system--in this case for his own personal survival and that of his love. (As in most dystopias the love and humanity of the individual is contrasted with the hate and repression of the state.)
In Antz, a film that references THX1138, the dystopia of a super-capitalist society is transferred to a very real and tangible setting, that of an ant colony. Here Z-4195, one of thousands of worker ants, spurred on by both his love for a princess and his own alienation, leads the workers and soldiers to overthrow the rulers after finding he couldn't escape on his own. As Z realises, 'It's the workers that control the means of production.'
It's not always love that inspires the hero of the film--sometimes it's personal circumstance. The films based on the works of Philip K Dick are prime examples of this. Take Minority Report, for example, where one man makes a difference. He fights the idea of predetermined futures and fate because he is forced to--or otherwise to accept the status quo and imprisonment. Or in Total Recall (based on Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) it is the individual who searches for the truth of his, and humanity's, past rather than accept the torture and programming offered. These show a very different motivation that comes out of their protagonists' own situation and suffering. The drive for freedom is more powerful for Dick's characters than the drive for love.
Perhaps the most stunning and effective dystopias in film, however, are those portrayed in today's society. Socialist Realist 'kitchen sink' dramas like Ken Loach's Kes, Dogme 95 films such as Dancer in the Dark and anti-war films like The Thin Red Line portray vivid dystopias that are not only realistic and perceivable but recognisable and everyday. In these the contrast of dystopia and the struggle against it are evident. In The Thin Red Line nature's beauty and innocence is contrasted with the horror of war, and Bjork's character in Dancer in the Dark challenges and defeats the predetermination that a genetic defect will cause her son to go blind.
These still can be remote situations to us but in kitchen sink dramas the situations are very real. In Brassed Off the dystopia is the reality of post-Thatcher mining towns. The contrast is provided by the heroes' love for music but the fightback is inspired by their poverty. The use of an ensemble cast rather than lead and support roles in Brassed Off, and also The Full Monty, helps emphasise the collective rather than the individual, setting them apart from the other films covered. Throughout the past decade films like Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot have revived the kitchen sink drama and show a dystopia of contrast, inspiration and fightback, a dystopia in which we live, a dystopia which we can change.
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage
by Tom Stoppard
National Theatre, London
|Talking about revolution in Voyage|
This is a monumental work on a monumental theme. Three plays, each three hours long, about the lives and ideas that shaped the 19th century revolutionary movement in Russia. Among the individuals that walk the stage are Louis Blanc, Bakunin, Mazzini, Turgenev, Kossuth, Ogarev, Herwegh, Marx, and above all, Alexander Herzen.
Alexander Herzen was, in Lenin's words, the man who 'launched revolutionary agitation' in Russia. In exile after imprisonment, he was a witness to the 1848 revolution in Paris--the event that dominates the second of these plays--and its subsequent betrayal and defeat. Victim of a family tragedy that would have broken most people, he spent most of the rest of his life in London where he founded the first Russian socialist newspaper--The Bell. But his principled support for the Polish uprising against Russian rule alienated the 'moderates' while his gradualist approach to change alienated the radicals and he ended his days in a political wilderness.
Herzen is the main protagonist of these plays, and evidently the 'hero', although the playwright Turgenev (whose volume of essays From the Other Shore inspired the title) and the critic Belinsky are also treated with great sympathy. The radicals receive rather less understanding--notably the anarchist Bakunin, who is essentially a figure of fun, forever fomenting desperate uprisings and sponging off his comrades. He was indeed almost a childlike character--and a menace to serious revolutionary organisation. ('On the first day of a revolution,' someone said of him in 1848, 'he is worth his weight in gold; on the second day, he ought to be shot.') But you would not guess from Stoppard's plays that Bakunin spent years rotting in prison in the Russian Peter Paul fortress and the prisons of the Austrian Empire.
This is symptomatic of a problem with the whole work. In his largely successful effort to dramatise complex ideas and historical episodes--and particularly Herzen's life and philosophy--Stoppard sometimes stumbles into shorthand when he comes to other ideas and movements. Occasionally this leads to caricature, as in his treatment of Marx. This makes for huge distortions when it comes to the real history of those times and the real ideas of those involved, as well as their subsequent influence.
Take the 1848 revolution: is it really honest to depict Marx's role without mentioning the fact that he wrote one of the most important and influential political pamphlets of all time about it (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)? The omission seems more than accidental. The climax of the whole work is a dream in which Herzen's vision of history as uncertain and man-made are contrasted with Marx's supposedly abstract views on the inevitable march of progress and a bloody vision of the Bolshevik revolution. 'History has no culmination!' proclaims Herzen against Marx. 'There is no libretto. We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us.'
Yet far from Marx believing in history as some sort of mechanical process--stage followed by stage--he understood very early on that human action, chance and the actions of individuals could change the balance of forces.
Unlike Herzen and his followers he devoted his life to understanding the mechanics as well, which is why his legacy proved vastly more important, both in Russia and elsewhere. What Marx actually concluded--in the second paragraph of that pamphlet on 1848--was: 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.'
This distortion damages the plays, but should not put people off seeing them. There is some dazzling writing (as you would expect from Stoppard), superb acting, and they are stunningly produced. Above all there is real drama, despite Stoppard's espousal of some sort of political 'middle way'. Of the three works, Voyage is more or less self contained and is probably the most convincing, depicting the gradual evolution of the Russian intelligentsia from philosophical contemplation to political action. The other two make less sense seen on their own (it is also possible to see all three on one day) but have some powerful episodes, notably the crisis in Herzen's private life, movingly portrayed in Shipwreck, and the confrontation, in Salvage, between Herzen and Chernyshevsky, arguing the revolutionary case. It is in this scene that Stoppard comes closest to the truth, with both men yearning for change and instinctively drawn to each other, yet unable to bridge a political divide. History eventually left Herzen high and dry on the beach, but for all that he played a key role in the development of socialist ideas in Russia and to the end of his days remained committed to his ideals.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
|Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon at this year's Edinburgh festival|
It seems that rumours of the death of fringe theatre have been somewhat exaggerated. Despite complaints--many of them justified--regarding the huge growth in the number of substandard stand-up comedy shows on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this year's event still found the world's biggest arts festival doing what it does best, responding creatively to international events.
The 11 September attacks and their aftermath were the theme of numerous productions. Inevitably, most hype was reserved for the arrival in Edinburgh of left wing American movie actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins to present their performed reading of The Guys, Anne Nelson's piece about New York firefighters.
The drama, which Robbins describes as a 'document' rather than a play, is based upon journalist Nelson's experience of being asked to help a New York fire captain write eulogies to eight of his men who died as the Twin Towers collapsed. It is often touching in its consideration of loss and the need for collective grief.
However, Nelson's desire to retain the immediacy of her text, which was written soon after 11 September, leaves the piece seeming a little ragged and incomplete. The writing and the structure of the piece need attention. Although Sarandon and Robbins (and other live theatre casts) have been happy to perform it as a reading rather than a fully staged play, I suspect that the director of the feature film of The Guys (which will star Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia) will want to make some changes.
While the media circus went into overdrive for the American movie stars, other, more accomplished, pieces of 11 September related theatre had to make do with more humble press coverage. They included an undoubted Fringe highlight, Victory at the Dirt Palace by young US ensemble company The Riot Group.
The group won a prestigious Scotsman Fringe First award in 1999 for their brilliant and sharp satire of modern America, Wreck the Airline Barrier. Their latest play saw them pick up the award again. Interweaving references from Shakespeare's King Lear with the story of rival US news anchors James Mann and his daughter Kay, the piece takes us into the TV ratings war which followed the 11 September attacks. Satirising much more than just the US news media, the play has the same kind of complex, darkly humorous and politicised writing that made Wreck such a success.
The extraordinary, full-force acting of the piece also saw the company nominated for theatre newspaper The Stage's award for best ensemble. Full of well directed rage and sharply observed, often expletive-laden language, Victory at the Dirt Palace is not for those of a nervous disposition, or Daily Mail readers. Look out for a possible British tour of this superb piece in 2003.
If the Americans provided most of the 11 September themed drama, there were also attempts to come to terms with the implications of the attacks by British writers. Most notable was Steven Berkoff, whose performance poem 'Requiem for Ground Zero' took the Assembly Rooms by storm. Like his famous acting style, Berkoff's text is muscular, poignant and comic. It considers the normality of the September morning on which so many people went unknowingly to their deaths, powerfully evoking memories of the desperate mobile phone calls and answering machine messages from people in the hijacked planes.
Some will, no doubt, consider Berkoff's bold outlines, both of the events and the players in them, to be mawkish or over the top. Yet in the midst of his impressive physical performance, there are many moments of touching humanity.
As ever with Berkoff, there are also moments of real ambiguity. His reference to the conflict within Palestine is politically oblique, to put it mildly. Yet when he comes to the subject of the US and British governments' responses to 11 September, the piece becomes much more pointed and politically charged.
Bush as a cowboy and Blair as a priest are already established satires, but Berkoff breathes superb new life into them. The blinking and bleeping of US communications technology makes us think of the Afghan civilians, without phones and silent in death, blasted by the US and British military machines. Similarly, as Berkoff's Bush describes the full panoply of military hardware at his disposal, the contrast between the power and wealth of the US and the poverty of its intended victims looms large. He ends Bush's tirade with the brilliantly direct words, 'And then we'll see who's got the biggest hate.'
'Requiem' is a powerful, emotive and, finally, political response to 11 September. Following its Edinburgh success, audiences elsewhere should be given the opportunity to experience it.